The White Man Apologizes
D. Garcia-WahlPermit me to start off by simply saying, “I’m sorry.” I am German. I am sorry. Those who know me will tell you that I pass for white. For this I am sorry, as well. Wait, wait—stay where you are. While the next item in this issue of Whistling Shade is wonderful, bear with me for a moment. I know talking about race makes people uncomfortable and the idea of Shady Dealings talking about race is potentially dangerous, but if you give me another moment, I’ll humbly finish my apology and send you off to the next page.
Back in the mid 1990s, I came upon a listing of poetry magazines that published minority writers only. Their submission guidelines stated that submissions were closed to anyone who did not fall into a particular racial or gender group. At the time I was bothered by this as I firmly believe that the poem should stand on its own regardless of the race or gender of the author, talent being the only necessary criteria. So I sent to the first publication on the list. This poetry magazine was open only to submissions from African-American poets. I sent three poems without a bio. Within a few weeks, the acceptance of one of those poems was in my mailbox. With that one acceptance, I was on fire and submitted to every publication on the list. I sent to African-American magazines, Asian-American journals, even magazines that permitted only female authored submissions. I had my share of rejections but the acceptances outweighed them. I was very young and I was breaking the barriers! I was showing the world that the written work shone brighter than the writer. I began to rail against publications that closed their doors based on race and gender. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong. I never felt that because I was taking the place on a page that could have included the work of a minority writer that I was violating Affirmative Action. I merely wanted to place a curtain between the poet and the poem.
I received a letter from one publication, specializing in African-American poets, that had accepted a work of mine, inviting me to attend and read at the release party for the newest issue. The letter even stressed the importance that African-American poets, like myself, continue to write and spread their work through publications such as theirs. I was elated. Now I could show up to read and truly stress my point that the importance be placed strictly on the words and not the color of the skin of he who wrote them. I do not recall if it was a matter of apathy or subconscious cowardice but, in the end, I did not attend the reading. I regret having not attended; not because it would have made for a better anecdote but because I may have been educated to the reason for the confusion in my platform today.
Soon after the release party took place, I was leafing through an anthology of Irish poets in Borders, Uptown. The idea that the book was published to highlight a collective of Irish poets did not bother me. I was no more bothered when I purchased a hard cover anthology of modern Asian poets. So what was the difference between book anthologies that are restricted by race and magazines that do the same thing? Back in 1995 I could not answer that and 15 years later I still cannot. I still put the importance on the poem and not the poet, but why should I care if a publication is striving to collect the best poems from a specific racial or gender group? I shouldn’t.
Obviously if a submission guideline allowed submissions from “whites only”, I’d be upset (we all would). That, of course, is going too far. That would be to say that there is a restriction based on skin color when we can assume that the restrictions are “nationality” based. We, therefore, have to approach this by considering everything to be based on nationality rather than race. So do I feel any differently thinking in terms of nationality rather than race? No, and I don’t know why.
On a spoken word CD anthology I was included on several years ago, my name was listed after the title of the track. Following my name was printed, “(German-American)”. This also bothered me. I am proud of my German heritage but I didn’t want the association to be placed on the poem. Maybe it’s the same reason I don’t like to see the author’s photo on a book jacket. It taints the way I see the characters and the narrator. It is the same reason I do not read any info about a writer I am unfamiliar with when picking up their work for the first time. As poetry editor of Whistling Shade (which is open submissions, thank you very much), I do not read bios before I read the poems and accept or reject the poem. Bios are the end of the process for me.
Perhaps it is nothing more than I do not want labels placed on the poet beyond the word “poet”. But this does not explain why I feel differently between book anthologies and magazines. This is not explained even if I consider the possibility that this all stems from our collective discomfort when it comes to matters of race or nationality.
I do not have a racist bone in my body, so it doesn’t originate from that. I do not have a sense of being excluded and feeling like I need to attempt to put an end to all this so I can submit my work to more places. It is none of this.
In the end, I don’t know why I feel this way and am unable to shake the feeling using reason. But I do know I am sorry. I am sorry I feel this way and cannot pinpoint a logical reason. Yet something tells me it’s wrong. I would be thrilled if someone could explain it all to me. I welcome those explanations from anyone regardless of race, creed, or gender.
D. Garcia-Wahl's first novel, Ashes of mid autumn, was published in 2004 and his first full collection of poetry, All that does come of madden'd days, hit the bookstores recently. He is currently putting the finishing touches on three more novels and another collection of poetry.